Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Acts 9:1-22 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
If you were selecting someone to serve as a character witness for you, would you choose your most tireless opponent? If you were selecting someone to care for one of your most precious possessions, would you choose someone who had repeatedly gone out of his way to work against your interests?
Choices like that might seem to defy human reason. Yet in today’s reading from Acts, we find our Lord making just such a choice, as Christ selects Saul, the persecutor of Christians, to be his chosen apostle to carry the Gospel of Christ to the nations.
In the earliest years of the Christian Church, it would have been difficult to find a more dedicated opponent of Christ than Saul of Tarsus. From supporting the stoning of Stephen to rounding up and imprisoning Christians in Jerusalem, Saul did his best to destroy the Christian Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1–3). In Galatians Paul says he actually “tried to destroy [the church].” And when the Christians in Jerusalem had been imprisoned or scattered for safety, Saul took steps to expand his reach again to the Church in an ever expanding geographical area. As we heard, Saul sought and received permission from the high priest to travel to Damascus to arrest the Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
Jesus, though, had other ideas. Saul set out on the road to Damascus to imprison Christians, but Christ met Saul on that road to set him free. Saul set out in malice, but Jesus met him in mercy.
Christ began by confronting Saul with his sin. The risen, glorified Jesus came to Saul in a flash of blinding light—and having brought Saul to his knees on the dirt of the Damascus road, Christ said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (v 4). In his blindness, Saul called out, “Who are you, Lord?” [The Lord answered,] “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (v 5).
Although Saul’s physical sight was gone, he began at last to see things clearly. In persecuting the Church—the Body of Christ—he had been persecuting Christ himself. And Christ, whom he persecuted, is himself the Lord.
With that heartrending knowledge, Saul was sent by the Lord Jesus into Damascus. Over three days of fasting and prayer, he had time to consider what he had done and to begin connecting the Scriptures he had long known with the One he now knew those Scriptures testified about. Then the Lord sent to Saul a faithful man named Ananias—one of the Damascus Christians Saul had been intending to arrest.
Ananias came to Saul, laid his hands on him, and baptized him into Christ Jesus. Through God’s gift of healing, Saul’s eyes were opened to see, and through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, Saul was brought out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light.
Saul had been Christ’s enemy, but Christ graciously transformed him into a friend.
By God’s grace in Christ, Saul had been reconciled to God—and then Christ sent Saul out as his ambassador to bring that same gift of reconciliation to the world.
Through Ananias, the Lord revealed his plans for Saul, saying, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (v 15). Now that Saul had been brought into the light of Christ, he would serve as Christ’s instrument to bring that light to the world.
On the cross, Christ by his blood “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). So from the day he rose, he set about broadcasting that good news to people from every background in every land.
And in his gracious wisdom, our Lord chose to send that message out to sinners through sinners. After all, who better than the forgiven to share the good news of forgiveness? Who better than a man like Saul, who could describe himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), to speak the comfort that Christ is the friend of sinners?
So, beginning from Damascus, Christ sent his Gospel through Saul—also known as Paul—to places like Arabia, Asia Minor, and Europe. There, Saul carried Christ’s name before Gentiles and Jews, bondservants and businesswomen, jail keepers and kings.
Along the way, Saul suffered greatly for the name of Christ—much like others had once suffered for Christ at Saul’s own hand. But through that name of Christ that he proclaimed, countless souls found light, life, and peace in Christ—just as Saul did.
Ever since then, Christ has continued to send out his Gospel through one forgiven sinner to another—and today, he sends it to you, for this message is just as important for us as it was for Saul.
We might not have participated in the organized persecution of Christians as Saul did. But we are every bit as dependent on God’s saving grace as Saul was.
We each come into this life with a fallen, sinful nature that looks in toward itself rather than up to the Lord—a heart that by nature does not humble itself before the Lord or put his will above our own. As Paul once put it, we by nature have a mind that “is hostile to God” and “does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom 8:7). In short, we are by nature enemies of God, and without a Savior who died for us, we are destined for eternal death and punishment.
Yet, just as Christ was not content to let Saul continue on his dead-end road, our Lord did not want to see any of us lost. So, as he did for Saul, he came to us.
As he did for Saul, Christ came to you personally in baptism to give you the new life that he purchased for you on the cross and previewed for you in his resurrection. Christ stood in the way of God’s wrath and caused him to put away his anger by taking your place in punishment. He has reconciled you to God. By water and the Word, he shined his light into your heart. Having paid your ransom on the cross, he came to you personally and unshackled your chains.
And as Christ cared for Saul throughout the highs and lows of his mission work, Christ also continues coming to you in his Word and at his Table—comforting you with his forgiveness, strengthening you in his grace, and giving you his peace. He comes and calls you “friend” (Jn 15:15).
Though we have earned none of this, it is all ours as God’s free gift in Christ. For, as we have seen in Saul’s experience and see in what the Lord has done for us,
In Jesus Christ, We Have a Merciful Lord Who by his Suffering and Death Transforms His Enemies into Friends.
That is the kind of God we have: a God who astounds us with his amazingly gracious choices. A God who chose his most tireless opponent to carry his name before the nations. A God who entrusted the treasure of his Gospel to a man who had once tried to eradicate the Gospel. A God who reaches out to people like Saul—and like you and me—who have lived as his enemies, and he chooses us to be his trusted friends.
For all this, may the name of Jesus Christ be praised forevermore—for he alone is worthy (Rev 5:9). Amen.